A tale of Tiananmen intrigue
A reporter who tried to obtain a sensitive manuscript is charged with spying by China.
When Ching Cheong left his wife, Mary Lau, in Hong Kong to cross the Chinese border 45 minutes away, he thought he was scoring a major publishing coup in Asia. Instead, he wound up in Chinese custody charged with espionage.Skip to next paragraph
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According to Ms. Lau, her husband, a prominent Hong Kong journalist and ardent Chinese nationalist, was to bring home an unpublished manuscript titled "Conversations with Zhao Ziyang Under House Arrest." The work, by retired official Zong Fengmin, is about as hot as it gets in the world of Chinese politics.
The contents of Mr. Zong's "Conversations" are unknown. But a central point of Zong's recently published memoir of Mr. Zhao, a purged former premier, was that in the run-up to the June 4, 1989, massacre around Tiananmen, the demand by students for greater openness and democracy was the same demand being made by wide swaths of mid-level and high-ranking party members in Beijing.
"When Western journalists write that China lost a chance for democracy in 1989, no one in China pays attention," says a Beijing-based foreign eyewitness to the Tiananmen massacre, the anniversary of which is Saturday. "When a senior party member says that it was not just bohemian students that wanted democracy, but senior party members too, that is powerful and sensitive."
Mr. Ching left his Hong Kong residence on April 22, was arrested on the mainland, and charged this week with espionage - though authorities have offered no evidence or details. Ching, who writes for the Straits Times of Singapore, is not allowed to see family, visitors, or legal counsel. Nearly every newspaper and press freedom group in Asia has called for his release.
Diplomats and foreign reporters see Ching's arrest as part of an ongoing pattern in China to control history and censor open discussion. Zhao's death in January, after 16 years under house arrest for supporting pro-democracy students prior to the 1989 crackdown, brought huge vigils in Hong Kong. But in Beijing it brought a large police, press, and Internet crackdown.
Foreign journalists' groups express concern that Ching's arrest is a heavy-handed tactic to thwart the publishing of a sensitive manuscript - and that it sets a bad precedent, since foreign reporters have rarely been arrested and then held in China.
"If formal charges are to be laid against Mr. Ching, the exact nature of his alleged offense ... must be made public," notes an official release by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. "Any subsequent proceedings must be transparent."
Thursday, in a surprising move that reflects on the control Beijing holds in supposedly autonomous Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, the chief candidate in this summer's election for Hong Kong chief executive, refused to meet with Ching's wife, Lau.
Ching was born and raised in Hong Kong, and is widely known there for his excellent sources inside China, developed over 30 years. The 1989 Tiananmen episode affected him deeply. At the time, many Chinese journalists at state media such as Xinhua were sympathetic with student demands. Some famously carried a huge banner through Tiananmen that read, "Don't Make Us Lie Anymore." Ching, along with nearly 40 journalists, resigned his post at a Beijing newspaper after troops and tanks opened fire on students and workers in the alleyways and roads around the square, and killed hundreds who had gathered peacefully on the square.